Five national news organizations, including CNN, are asking a federal court to unseal records from the criminal case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election.
Together, the effort by the Associated Press, Politico, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN marks the first time anyone outside of the government and defendants requested a judge unseal records related to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. The case could become an early test of the court's limits on keeping filings sealed as Mueller's work progresses.
The news outlets are asking to unseal all search, seizure and electronic data warrants in the Russia criminal investigation, especially related to Manafort. They also are seeking unredacted versions of filings and transcripts from court actions in the case against Manafort, who continues to fight his charges. Some of the hearing transcripts under seal relate to Manafort's campaign deputy Rick Gates, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.
"Under the common law, courts balance the public's right to information about the workings of the criminal justice system against the legitimate countervailing interests of the government; here, that balance tips decisively in favor of the public," the media group's legal team writes.
Many of Manafort and Gates' court filings are already public, and the court unsealed a smattering of hearing transcripts from their case last week.
Yet several Manafort case filings remain under seal or heavily redacted, the media group notes, such as the search warrants used to raid his apartment, access his email account, seize funds from three banks and access phone numbers. The sealed filings also include transcripts of hearings, likely about Manafort's attempts to change his house arrest terms and Gates' transition to a different legal team, in January and February.
The news organizations argue that publicizing the documents won't hurt the ongoing investigation, because many of the secret documents have already been discussed in court with the defendants or in the press. Mueller's team could redact some sensitive information in the documents if needed, while still making their existence public, the media group writes.
Additionally, many of the people named in the search warrants shouldn't be given the same level of privacy as most individuals, because they sought public office or roles in the presidential campaign, the organizations argue.
"Already, the President's former national security adviser (Michael Flynn) and two former campaign aides (Gates and George Papadopoulos) have pleaded guilty to committing felonies, and his former campaign manager stands accused in two federal courts of crimes related to his work for Russia-connected individuals and organizations," the court filing says.
"(O)ne of the ultimate questions in the Russia Investigation is whether the President himself unlawfully attempted to influence or obstruct the probe. The gravity and importance of this criminal investigation is second to none in our nation's history, and therefore the public's interest in the transparency of that investigation is paramount to all but the most crucial constitutional considerations."
CNN and several other news organizations and watchdog groups have separately sought government and classified documents related to the Mueller probe through Freedom of Information Act and other lawsuits, though none had challenged sealed criminal court proceedings.
The case has been assigned to Judge Richard Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit. Leon is also overseeing the trial of the lawsuit brought by the Justice Department brought to stop AT&T's planned acquisition of Time Warner, CNN's parent company.